Mountain Equipment Company

How to stay safe when you’re hiking

Before you set out for the trailhead, you might be thinking about the awesome forest you’ll be surrounded by on your hike. Or maybe you’ll be imagining the viewpoint where you’ll pose for photos with your friends. Or maybe you’re focused on the tasty snacks you’ll bring in your backpack.

But there’s one more crucial thing to consider well before you leave home: safety.

Why hiking safety is so important

Most hikers don’t expect to run into trouble and need help from Search and Rescue (SAR) groups. But that’s exactly what happens to some hiking groups, with nearly 1900 SAR incidents each year in BC – and that’s only one province.

It’s important to remember that SAR is available 24/7. In case of an emergency, call 9-1-1 on your communication device; there is no charge for rescue in Canada. But to help reduce the number and severity of search and rescue incidents, follow AdventureSmart's 3Ts: trip plan, train, and take the essentials (more on this below).

Common reasons hikers call SAR and how to prevent them

The three biggest reasons hikers need help from Search and Rescue in BC are:

  • Injury

  • Getting lost or disoriented

  • Exceeding their abilities

AdventureSmart wants to help increase awareness and educate hikers (and everyone else getting outside) about smart practices for outdoor safety – the goal is to reduce the number and severity of search and rescue incidents. Let’s take a closer look at each of these situations so you can stay safer on your next hike.

Preventing injury

Start slow. Take your time at the beginning of the summer and ease into your adventures. You can work your way up to longer and more technical terrain when you’re ready.

Practice listening to your body. When you feel tired, achy, thirsty, hungry, mentally drained, or like you’re getting a blister, address those issues immediately. Otherwise, they could become bigger problems. Many injuries happen late in the day, when you’re tired.

First aid is also key. Make sure everyone in your group has first aid training, carries a first aid kit, and knows how to use the supplies in their kit.

Two hikers sitting on a rustic bench; one is pulling a puffy jacket out of their backpack, the other is eating an apple

Getting lost or disoriented

If you become lost when you’re hiking, the best thing you can do is S.T.O.P. (stop, think, observe, plan) and stay where you are. Don’t be tempted to navigate your way out by taking a “shortcut” or leaving the trail. You could wind up even farther from where you want to go and potentially get into hazardous terrain.

“Shortcuts” also take you away from the route you listed on your trip plan (see below), which will make it harder for SAR to find you. If you’re 1km off your planned route, SAR will need to search an area of 3.1 square km. At 3km off your route, the search area becomes 28 square km.

Don’t exceed abilities

Taking a risk means exposing yourself to a hazard, like crossing a creek or scrambling up boulders. Do you have the skills and training to take that risk? You have to think of the consequences and decide what is right for you and your group.

If not everyone in your group has the skills to take the risk, the decision should be obvious – you don’t do it. It’s better to turn back or go around the obstacle (if possible) than to push past your limits and wind up getting hurt.

Before you leave on your adventure, it’s a good idea to assess everyone’s skills and ability level and their goals for the day. Making sure you’re all on the same page will help you make better and quicker decisions when you’re on the trail – and ensure everyone gets home safely.

How to prepare for your next hike

AdventureSmart recommends getting ready for your next hike using the 3 Ts:

  • Trip planning

  • Training

  • Taking the essentials

Here’s a closer look at what to do before a hike.

Trip planning

Plan your route by reviewing a trail guide, map and directions. Make sure you understand the terrain and conditions. Is there still snow on the trail? Is there water available? Check the weather forecast and think about whether it’s a good day to tackle this terrain.

Always fill out a trip plan that details where you’re going and who’s hiking with you. Give it to someone you trust who can alert SAR via 9-1-1 if you’re not back by a certain time.

Training

Before heading out, learn the skills you’ll need for your trip through certification-based courses (such as first aid classes) and mentorship (such as joining a hiking clubs with knowledgeable leaders). If it’s been a while since you laced up your hiking boots, it’s best to not over-exert yourself. Short, local hikes are a great way to start building your hiking muscles.

Taking the essentials

No matter how “easy” or “short” you think the hike might be, always carry the essentials and add seasonal and activity-specific gear. It’s also important to know how to use the gear you have with you and to make sure it’s in good working order. Did you check the batteries in your headlamp and pack spares? Is your phone and communication device (like a SPOT, InReach or Zoleo) fully charged?

Here are more tips for preparing for a day hike. If you’re ready to tackle an overnight hike, you’ll need to consider a few extra details.

Taking the time to plan and prepare for your hike can help prevent issues and make your outing more fun. Remember, your destination isn’t the summit or viewpoint – it’s home.